G18s Winner Trophy2

In July 2016, a largely unknown, unseeded competitor slashed his way through the USTA Boys’ 18 & 16 National Clay Court Championships draw in Delray Beach, Fla. “It feels good,” the youth told the local CBS TV affiliate after his win. “I think I wanted a gold ball more than winning the tournament, actually. It’s nice to finally have one.”

Tennis fans would soon become more familiar with that youngster, Sebastian Korda. The son of two former elite pros—his father Petr was an Australian Open champion—Sebastian is still just 21, but he’s already made the fourth round at two majors and been ranked inside the Top 40. As has often been the case, Korda’s gold ball functioned like a crystal ball, foretelling a splendid future.

The USTA “Gold Ball” is a coveted talisman, awarded to any winner of a singles or doubles national title in all gender and age divisions, from the Women’s 90 (and over) Grass Court Nationals to the Boys’ 12 (and under) Hard Court Nationals. The gold ball has exerted a near mystical pull for legions of players, but none more than talented youngsters hoping to become stars of the game.

“The kids do care, it’s indisputable,” says Colette Lewis, whose Zoo Tennis website focuses on the junior game. “Getting the gold ball is the highest thing in junior tennis.”

The gold ball tradition is unique—no other sport has anything quite like this wide-ranging award, not even tennis’ sister sport, golf. Julia Pine, the Director of Championship Communications for the United States Golf Association, wrote in an email, “I do not believe there is anything (in golf) similar to what you describe.”

Sebastian Korda, Claire Liu (above) and Brandon Nakashima (below) are just some of the junior gold ball winners that became fixtures in professional game.

Sebastian Korda, Claire Liu (above) and Brandon Nakashima (below) are just some of the junior gold ball winners that became fixtures in professional game.


The honor roll of gold ball winners is a veritable who’s who of tennis. Scrolling through the junior records is a fascinating dive into a world of familiar names—as well as monikers known only to the high priestesses and aficionados of the game. There are esteemed champions, but also “can’t-miss” talents, who for some reason or other missed. There are solid pros and long-forgotten sensations. You’ll find, among many others: Rod Laver (foreign nationals are eligible to compete in some events, like Boys’ 18s), Marueen Connolly, Donald Young, Jennifer Capriati, Scott Davis, Doris Hart, Juan Farrow, Laxmi Poruri, Ben Testerman, Andrea Jaeger, Al Parker, Jimmy Connors, Gail Brodsky, Cliff Richey, Chris Evert, Ramesh Krishnan, Walter Redondo, Jack Sock, Vince Richards . . . this could go on forever, but you get the point.

“Those (gold) balls were hugely popular when I was in juniors,” says Andrea Jaeger, the former prodigy and winner of numerous gold balls. “I remember many moms proudly wearing them on their necks, and us juniors excited to see how many we could win. I remember how they came in small special protective cases.”

Jaeger reached No. 2 in the world in 1981, but her career was cut short by major shoulder surgeries. She subsequently founded and now operates Little Star, a foundation that caters to children with cancer and families in need. She praised the “creative” nature of the gold balls, a spin-off from Olympic medals.

“This was a junior tennis version of that,” she says.

The balls are small, only two-and-a-half inches around. And in case you were wondering, they are not made of solid gold. They are gold-plated bronze, manufactured for over 35 years in a proprietary mold by the Talisman Group (specialists in award and recognition items).

Each ball is presented in a custom-made wooden box with an etched-glass viewing window bearing the USTA logo, and an engraved plate describing the achievement. Thus, the ball can be displayed or shown without being removed from the box. Brian Fealy, a spokesman for Talisman, told me in an email that it’s difficult to pin down how many balls are given out annually, but there are scores of national championships based on surface, age-group, and gender.

But regardless of the gold balls’ composition or prevalence, they are priceless items to players. That’s clear based on the strength of this tradition, and the select list of players who have won the shiny little orbs.

Nakashima won the Easter Bowl USTA Junior Spring Nationals in 2017, earning an ITF trophy, ranking points, and a gold ball for his efforts.

Nakashima won the Easter Bowl USTA Junior Spring Nationals in 2017, earning an ITF trophy, ranking points, and a gold ball for his efforts.

The gold standard in gold-ball prospectors is the late Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney, who earned 394—that’s not a typo—of them. An elite player, she won her lone Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in 1938. But Cheney really came into her own as she aged and entered the weekend warrior ranks of the recreational game. Her mind-boggling haul is a testament to her zeal for the game, as well as her constitution. She pocketed that final, 394th ball at age 95 in a 90-and-over doubles event at the National Hard Courts.

The closest a male player has come to Cheney’s haul is the late Gardnar Mulloy, who said in 1996, shortly after earning his 100th ball: “I have great respect for Dodo Cheney, but no hope of catching her.”

The elite pros of the Open Era rarely play rec-level, age-group tennis after they retire, so none comes anywhere near the top of the gold ball winner lists. Adult age-group standouts like Cheney are usually avid players who stay in shape and have the drive—along with the time and resources—to chase national titles.

The blizzard of familiar names takes place in the junior division, although banking gold balls is no guarantee of success at the next level. Al Parker set the bar for juniors when he bagged his 25th gold ball at an 18s tournament in 1987. His most notable achievement: during his second year in the 12-and-unders, Parker won the singles and doubles at all four major national tournaments—an extraordinary feat that has been equaled only once, in 2005, by high-school star Jack Sock.

Sock has flourished in the pro game while Parker did not. Parker’s great weapon was his competitive maturity—a tremendous asset in the juniors, but less so, relatively speaking, in the big show. His brain was bigger than his game, but he also struggled with recurring injuries, and retired in 1989 after playing in just nine matches on the ATP tour (1–8) and two US Open appearances (0–2). Parker then swore off tennis for good, and took up golf.

Parker’s profile is a familiar one. Others who harvested enough gold balls to decorate Christmas trees, but never hit comparable heights in pro tennis, include Billy Martin and Scott Davis. A number of highly-touted women, including Brodsky and Stephanie Rehe, had similar experiences if on a lesser scale.

Then there are a small number of elite players in recent years who completely bypassed the junior tennis gold rush. Those include Andre Agassi, whose trophy collection features eight Grand Slam singles titles, but just one gold ball. But the Hall of Famer and owner of a career Grand Slam is probably okay with that.